When HBO announced A Black Lady Sketch Show in 2019, it was hailed as a game-changer – the first TV show of its kind written by, directed by and starring black women. But in appreciation newer triumphs of representation, we often run the risk of letting older examples go forgotten. This isn’t the first time black women have done screwball, gonzo humour. The UK had its own answer to Robin Thede’s acclaimed series – and we did it all the way back in 2003.
Hidden-camera sketch show 3 Non-Blondes first aired on BBC3 in 2003, the first of its kind in the UK to feature a cast of all-black female comedians. Its trio of performers – Tameka Empson, Jocelyn Jee Esien and Ninia Benjamin – was hailed by the Observer as one of the 50 funniest British comedy acts. The show even went international with slots on BBC America and Comedy Channel in Australia. So why don’t more people know about it?
I came across reruns of the show when I was a kid on the now-defunct Trouble TV channel and was instantly mesmerised. The sketches were daring; the punchlines hysterical. Seventeen years ago, diversity and representation weren’t exactly on the agenda in film and television – so how did this one British series buck the trend and cast three black female leads?
“There really was a white comedy circuit and a black comedy circuit, or rather a multicultural comedy circuit,” 3 Non-Blondes producer Gary Reich remembers of the early 2000s. “They didn’t really overlap.”
Gary had just launched the careers of Sacha Baron Cohen and Dom Joly and was co-producing BBC2’s Comedy Nation. He was on the hunt for new talent unfamiliar to mainstream audiences. He was familiar with the work of Tameka, Jocelyn and Ninia – Jocelyn and Tameka had performed as a comedy double act, and Gary was already an admirer of Ninia’s stand-up work.
After Jocelyn sent Gary an early pilot of her work, he recruited herself, Ninia and Tameka to develop a comedy show for television. “We literally just got in this room and came up with loads of ideas and characters. We had ideas for a sitcom, a sketch show and a drama,” Jocelyn explains. “But I had lots of ideas for hidden camera stunts and knew Gary had worked on some other stunts in the past.”
Typical of the hidden-camera setup popular at the time, the show saw Jocelyn, Ninia and Tameka interact with unsuspecting members of the public, playing outlandish characters in ridiculous disguises: a virginal store browser asking for recommendations on the best bed for her first time, a heinously off-key street performer impersonating Elton John, a passerby asking for directions, only to abruptly derail the conversation by if whether they wanted to fuck. The show was outrageous – the characters were bizarre, the sketch material refreshingly original and the performances remarkable for a cast only in their early TV roles.
“We’d do a writers’ room, they came with sketches and ideas, and then they pitched them to the room,” Gary says. In what both him and Jocelyn both put down to the openness of the network, the women had a rare amount of creative freedom behind the camera. “We really were just left alone to grow, and flourish, and bounce ideas off. No-one questioned anything and we were trusted to create it all,” Jocelyn says.
Director John FD Northover joined the project in series two and says that filming itself proved to be a challenge. The crew had to conceal hidden cameras in books, backpacks and hats casually left around the filming area. “A lot of the filming was in shopping centres and we’ve been banned from a lot of them,” Jocelyn says with a chuckle, “but obviously I’d come back again as another character and then they didn’t recognise me.”
I’d always assumed that the all-black casting of 3 Non-Blondes was just a fortuitous coincidence – that the show might have worked with any combination of female comedians (assuming, of course, none of them were blonde). But Gary surprises me: “I was very clear I wanted to do something with black women because they were so unrepresented in comedy in the country.”
Jocelyn expresses similar frustrations of working in comedy at the time. “If I was on a show then I was the only black female, or I’d be the only female. You’d come out on stage and see people folding their arms. They seemed to think it was OK to say to me, ‘When you came out, we thought you’re going to be rubbish,’ but you weren’t!’ It was still a time where [people] thought women can’t be funny.”
The entertainment industry itself proved similarly resistant. Both Gary and Jocelyn said that some networks were only prepared to greenlight the project if the racial makeup of the cast was changed.
“I did have an astonishing conversation with a distributor, a white man, probably in his 50’s, who told me that ‘black people don’t buy DVDs,” Gary reveals. “They were very overt – [saying] ‘we’re not going to get big enough audiences.’”
Jocelyn believes that this hostility continues to undermine the marketing power of black performers as stars in their own right. “I don’t think at the time they thought it would work, and people still feel like that. People still don’t believe in a black woman carrying a show without a sprinkling of other races in there.”
3 Non-Blondes ended after two series. When asking why the show came to an end, there’s mixed offerings from the group. Gary and John both suggest public familiarity with the actors made them more recognisable and torpedoed the hidden camera element. Jocelyn cites changes in network direction and a desire to move to new projects, such as her starring role in The Little Miss Jocelyn Show. But one thing that remains is the real sense of pride all three expressed when talking about the project.
This nostalgia isn’t without discomfort. Jocelyn points out that the ongoing cultural amnesia around diversity in comedy – one that relegates triumphant black British comedy shows like 3 Non-Blondes to the sidelines. “Whenever I watch stuff on Gold TV and they do ‘Comedy Over the Past 50 Years’ or whatever, I don’t see any Real McCoy [the 90s BBC black and Asian sketch show] in there, I don’t see 3 Non-Blondes in there, there’s no black comedy [apart from] maybe touching on Lenny Henry.”
She offers pointed but hopeful reflections when I ask about how TV could recreate the success of 3 Non-Blondes, and what should be done to make black female comics more visible. It starts, she says, with people in the industry being willing to use their power and influence. “It’s taken so long for us to get to a stage where people really want to hear about the black female experience. They’ve just got to see us, and champion us.” It should start with remembering shows like 3 Non-Blondes for what they really are: trailblazers.